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Interrogating Japan's Soft Power: Conference Themes

Joseph Nye coined the phrase “soft power” in 1990 to describe the ability of nations to obtain desirable outcomes in international relations by relying on their cultural and ideological appeal abroad rather than their “hard power,” i.e. military and economic might. Soft power operates through attraction and seduction rather than coercion or economic incentive. By exercising soft power, nations are said to be able to persuade other nations to accept or promote certain values. Analyses of soft power have tended to focus on how American values like capitalism, democracy, human rights and individual opportunity are exported through popular and consumer culture. Soft power is viewed a key strategic resource for the ideological mission of disseminating such values globally. Crucial sources of contemporary US soft power are said to include movies, television, popular music, fashion and fast food, as represented by the global omnipresence and appeal of Disney, Levis, CocaCola and, of course, McDonalds. Despite their popularity abroad, many foreign governments and civil society organizations vehemently reject these products and the American cultural hegemony they allegedly represent.

Japan too, has enormous soft power potential. Despite a decade and a half of entrenched recession, Japanese soft power has been rising alongside the undeniable perception that Japan is one of the world's most cutting-edge, trend-setting nations in the realms of popular and consumer culture. Does Japanese soft power have the same goals as American soft power? What are the national values being promoted and do they contain the same universalist aspirations of American values? How is the ascendance of contemporary Japanese culture related to the historical sources and processes of Japanese national identity abroad? Who are the actors and beneficiaries of Japanese soft power? Does Japanese soft power face the same limits and constraints confronted by American soft power?

This workshop and conference will explore the historical and contemporary avenues of Japan’s soft power. Departing from a narrow conception of soft power that focuses on popular culture, leading scholars of Japan from a variety of disciplines have been invited to also explore the roles of aesthetics, narrative, religion, science and national branding in generating soft power for Japan. We will question the relationships among concepts like soft power, globalization and regionalism and will explore the mechanisms and agents of a variety of forms of Japanese soft power.